Program 1 of SF Ballet’s 80th anniversary yearÂ featured a world premiere by Wayne McGregor “Borderlands”,Â probably the most anticipated piece of the night. I attended theÂ Wednesday evening performance on January 30, 2013, which was theÂ second performance of the run.
I had read almost nothing about “Borderlands” before seeing the show, which I find myself doing more these days.Â The reading almost never helps anyways, and more often than notÂ sets up expectations that the actual performance may or may not meet. The piece started a bit self-consciously, with four dancersÂ on the extreme corners of a stark white stage with three white walls and a geometric square in center upstage, which later elevates to reveal two more dancers behind it. Immediately, the piece appeared to be the same as a lot of other modern ballets that we have seen on the War Memorial Opera House stage – with stark extreme lighting, pulsing music with themes of technology (with music by composers Joel Cadbury and Paul Stoney), and a movement vocabulary screaming with themes of alien machine-like movements pushing the boundaries of physicality. In the mind-numbing freneticism of superfast choreography, McGregor appeared to be announcing loudly, “I AM WAYNE MCGREGOR”, and yes, as an audience, we get it – we also get that when you place dancers in the extreme corners of the stage, you’re announcing that you are going to use the entire stage space. It’s also nothing new.
But then, something happens. I can’t pinpoint exactly the moment it happens, but it was when I stopped noticing the dramatic lighting, the loud music, and the choreography itself. I think it happened around the time of the pas de deux with Maria Kochetkova and Lonnie Weeks. Up until this point, the dancers appeared inhumane and non-relational, robotic and soulless. But Kochetkova and Weeks don’t appear to directly relate to each other in the usual cliches (lovers or friends), but dance in powerful emotions that are universal and so human. The choreography becomes less like a showcase somehow, but flows as natural as the tide across the stage, pulling your heart with them. Kochetkova and Weeks danced as if they were dancing within an inch of their lives, with every moment filled with urgency and poignancy. Sofiane Sylve and Vito Mazzeo follow, and their physicality is astounding. Both are formidable figures, Mazzeo equally matching Sylve’s big stage presence and agility, and both fully embody a fiery elegance, grace, Â and explosive power. They are jaw-droppingly good. McGregor’s “Borderlands” is definitely a must-see and a wonder to watch.
Serge Lifar’s Suite en Blanc is an odd piece, and without reading the program notes, I couldn’t quite pinpoint what era this ballet was made, mostly because of its random influences. Neoclassical in style and dressed in classic white tutus and ballet costumes, there are influences from across multiple centuries, from Marie Taglioni to folk dancing to modern dance with feet turned in parallel. But for me it made sense when I learned of Lifar’s long time connection with the Ballets Russes, which makes sense in the fact that Suite en Blanc is very showy and grandiose, much like something I imagine the Ballets Russes would have danced (even though this ballet was specifically created for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1943).
The curtain opens to a large cast of dancers frozen in time, like a painting that slowly comes to life. The music by Edouardo Lalo bathes the dancers in sweet romanticism. Lifar isn’t the best at the placement and utilizing his dancers in space – in the pas de trois with Sasha DeSola, Jaime Garcia Castilla, and Vitor Luiz, he has a pair dancing together with a lone dancer placed so far away Â that it is virtually impossible to watch all three dancers at once onstage. Lifar also underutilizes large groups of dancers upstage from a soloist or central couple in the front, as mostly these dancers just pose. The effect is a little stilting, but despite all this, the overall effect is grand and regal. For me, it made me feel like a less cynical person in that I could still be transported by the splendor of the showmanship and performance in Suite en Blanc, despite its quirks.
Jerome Robbins’ In the Night rounded out the program. I had seen it in the past and remembered it being unimpressive, but on second glance, there is definitely more to it than meets the eye. Robbins’ musicality is so subtle and something I appreciate more when I see more of his choreography, and perfectly mirrors the solo piano (played sensitively by Roy Bogas) in the nocturnes by Chopin. The piece features three couples dressed in glittering ballgowns, representing three different types of relationships. The first couple, danced by Sasha DeSola and Steven Morse, had almost no chemistry between them although ironically they represented a couple falling in love – but the choreography weaved in and out of the undulating phrases of Chopin’s nocturne in c sharp minor, highlighting the delicate climaxes and resolutions in the music, quietly and beautifully. Tiit Helimets and Jennifer Stahl danced the couple in the stable love of a long term relationship, and Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham burned up the stage in a relationship filled with drama, highlighted by Van Patten’s black and red dress.
In all, Program 1 is a program filled with love and passion, all wrapped in the perfect ballet romanticism. It was a wonderful evening and a great beginning to SF Ballet’s 80th anniversary season.